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Before thousands of drones hit the skies to make widespread package delivery a reality, there’s going to have to be some kind of air traffic control system to make sure drones can fly autonomously without colliding into each other. Recently, the team from Project Wing, the experimental delivery project at Alphabet’s X “moonshot” umbrella organization, tested a new system to manage traffic. Taking part in tests convened by NASA and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Project Wing conducted trials of its own traffic control platform.
The problem of tracking and managing flights will be critical to figure out before delivery can come to fruition. According to recode.net, drones don’t take off and land from the same place on set routes, they’re supposed to work more like cars, going directly to and from homes and offices. Operators will need to know where other drones are flying in order to prevent collisions, as well as which areas to avoid and when. Currently, There’s no comprehensive nationwide U.S. system for tracking traffic, which is one reason why it’s not legal for drones to fly beyond the line of sight of the operator.
During Wing’s air traffic control system test, the drones automatically steered away from each other without an operator needing to pilot the drones to manually avoid collision. The software helps drones plan routes and sends information to aircraft when an airspace restriction is issued.
The last year at Wing hasn’t been without turbulence. A former employee told the Wall Street Journal in a report from last December that the latest model of the Wing at that point hadn’t been able to complete more than 300 successful flights before something went wrong. In addition, during the final quarter of last year, the CEO of Wing, David Vos, as well as Sean Mullaney, Wing’s top commercial executive at the time, left the company.
NASA and the FAA aren’t scheduled to be done with their research into how to integrate air traffic control into the national airspace until 2019. But that doesn’t necessarily mean delivery will have to wait that long. President Trump recently shared a proposal to privatize the federal air traffic control system. NASA and the FAA both may open the doors for private companies to contract with the government to provide air traffic control solutions, as opposed to, say, the FAA building its own system, which could take a lot longer. And that means that delivery in U.S. skies could happen sooner than previously anticipated.